If, as Andrew Niccol says, the mainstream Hollywood studios "didn't want to touch" his darkly comic new anti-gun film, "Lord of War" (see review on Page 42), why doesn't the filmmaker seem more worried about polarizing his audience as well, especially in this highly politicized, red state/blue state, you're-either-with-us-or-you're-against-us time?
"Well, I don't see it as political," says Niccol, a New Zealand-born writer and director whose credits include the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "The Truman Show" (re-released last month in a "special edition" DVD) and the writing and directing of the brainy, Hugo-nominated sci-fi drama "Gattaca."
"It's the truth," he states simply, explaining that although "War's" main characters may be composites -- Nicolas Cage's slick freelance arms merchant Yuri Orlov, for instance, Ethan Hawke's dogged Interpol agent Jack Valentine and Eamonn Walker's volatile Liberian strongman Andre Baptiste Sr. -- "Nothing I'm saying is not factual."
Oh, really? What about that outlandish opening shot of Orlov, standing on what looks like a wall-to-wall carpet of rifle shells running down the center of a war-torn street?
"I know," Niccol says. "That looks like some art director gone insane, but I can show you a photograph taken in Monrovia, and you'll see it's identical."
And the scene in which a shadowy military officer engineers Orlov's release from police custody with a wink and a handshake? Based, Niccol says, on the case of an arrested Florida arms dealer who suddenly and mysteriously was given back his passport and allowed to leave the country without official explanation.
"This is fun," Niccol laughs. "What else have you got?"
How about the scene in the movie where the crew of a freighter loaded with guns repaints the ship's name while on the high seas to avoid detection by Interpol agents? Or Orlov's attempts to alter the registration of a plane carrying illegal weapons in midflight? Or the passing off of a helicopter bristling with obvious armaments as an "ambulance" helicopter? Or the use by African warlords of "brown-brown," a mix of cocaine and gunpowder used to incite children, sometimes as young as 6 years old, to run into street battles that any sane adult would shrink from?
Check, check, check and check. All "absolutely documentable" episodes from the burlesque of the arms trade, Niccol says. His extensive research into and interviews with those who supply the world's killing machines through euphemistically named "arms fairs" -- where "mortal enemies can be seen buying from the same vendors, and then go back to their separate factions and countries and try to kill each other" -- led the director to marvel at, and to try to get across, the "macabre insanity" of it all.
Ironically, he never feared for his own safety, even when shooting -- "correction: filming," Niccol jokes -- scenes involving real-live arms, for example the 3,000 real-life Kalashnikov rifles obtained from one real-life arms dealer. "If you want a whole lot of guns," the filmmaker says matter-of-factly, "the people who have them are arms dealers." As it turns out, thanks to their plentiful presence in abandoned weapons-and-ammo dumps around the world, real guns are cheaper to use than props. "You could start your own war with 3,000 Kalashnikovs," Niccol says.
He admits that his experience with gunrunners was limited and hardly typical. "It's hard to get the most notorious of these guys on the phone," he says. Still, he has nothing but praise for the ones he did end up dealing with.
"These men are businessmen," says Niccol, singling out for special praise one guy in the Czech Republic whom he prefers to leave nameless. Contracted to deliver 50 T-72 Soviet tanks one Monday morning for an important shoot, the dealer showed up with the goods -- scheduled to be sold to Libya later that week -- like clockwork and had the tanks lined up in military precision. "That particular gentleman was more reliable than my crew."
Despite the obvious anti-gun message of "War," Niccol resists the label of "issue filmmaker," and says he doesn't like to analyze what he does too much. "I'm afraid if I try to put my finger on it, I'll push it away." Nevertheless, he is able to identify a common theme in all of his films, which have addressed reality television ("The Truman Show"), eugenics ("Gattaca") and computer technology ("Simone"), but which, ironically, haven't had a single gun in any of them. "Under normal circumstances," he jokes, "it's a crime not to have a gun in a Hollywood film."
"What I'm interested in is certain aspects of the human condition," he says. "Or, rather, the inhuman condition. The inhumanity of technology and its misuse, what we're doing to each other."
Rather than change minds, however, Niccol hopes merely to "open people's eyes" with this film. "We're all arms dealers in a way, because we all indirectly profit from it." There's no trace of outrage in his voice when he says this. As for whether there's any in his film, Niccol insists that, first and foremost, it is entertainment.
If the economics of carnage seems a strange, even surreal, subject for a movie with mass appeal, that's only because, in Niccol's view, truth is stranger than fiction. And if the antihero of his film is a bad and tortured man, that too is as it should be. "I also believe that the devil is charming, too."